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Developer makes SR 54 inroads

Kevin Howell of Odessa, who's snapping up some prime sites, is in the vanguard of a trend toward retail and office parks.

By CHUIN-WEI YAP
Published January 9, 2007


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LAND O'LAKES - When Jim Himes sold his family home of 35 years, he never met the buyer.

The property is prime central Pasco real estate, fronting State Road 54 across from the Oakstead development.

All Himes knew was that the mystery buyer moved fast and had money.

In 10 days, the buyer swooped in to take over the contract from another buyer who had also courted Himes, and presented $1.9-million up front for Himes' 4.2 acres.

"Everything was done by e-mail and phone calls," Himes said. "It was very strange. It made me a little nervous. But we got our check."

Turns out the buyer was Kevin Howell, an Odessa-based developer of retail and office parks, who has spent much of 2006 steadily snapping up chunks of commercial property on an 8-mile stretch of SR 54.

His signs have become commonplace on that drag, either flaunting his name or just the telephone number of his firm.

In addition to the Himes property, Howell now also has at least five others between Ballantrae Boulevard and U.S. 41, including two that would straddle Oakstead's entrance.

Including two other office parks he developed in Seven Oaks, that would bring Howell's holdings along Pasco's busiest east-west artery to 507,500 square feet of space on nearly 70 acres of land.

Not bad for a year's worth of work.

So who is Kevin Howell?

Howell, who did not respond to a request for an interview, has some 25 years' worth of development experience in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando, according to his Web site.

He specializes in office parks, where individual lots and buildings are sold to insurance agents, doctors, dentists and real estate offices. Howell counts Westchase Commons Professional Center and the Tampa Telecom Professional Park in his portfolio.

Those who have dealt with him remark on his aura of seasoned savvy.

An example: Himes may have never met him, but Howell has been known to show up to meet buyers when he needed to cut a more intricate or persuasive deal.

"He was pretty straightforward, and he sat with us two or three times," said Bob Thurston of Oakstead's homeowners association. "We were concerned about maintaining the subdivision signs at the Oakstead entrance. ... He was very congenial."

In that instance, Howell needed to work out a deal to use one of Oakstead's drainage ponds, while also building one or two of his own for his Oakstead Commerce Park West, Thurston said.

But, as his nearly $500,000 per acre offer to Himes suggests, Howell is also willing to pay top dollar to secure his interests.

Property brokers say the price is high but not out of this world - or, at least, not out of Pasco's world.

A survey of similar properties in the area showed that SR 54 frontage commands the highest value. Comparable rates just a few miles south, on Birdsong Avenue in Lutz, dip to $199,000 per acre.

But to the east and west of the Howell purchases, $500,000 per acre wouldn't raise too many eyebrows.

An acre outside the proposed Cypress Creek Town Center, a few miles east on SR 56, commands $461,000. At Suncoast Crossings, just next to the Suncoast Parkway, it's $641,000 an acre.

"There certainly is a demand," said Rog Ravi, a real estate specialist with Prudential Tropical Realty, who helped provide some of the rate comparisons. "$500,000 is high, but not shocking."

But the prospect of a slew of office parks along SR 54 does raise some concern about the speed at which the market is heating up.

On the heels of a wobbling residential market, commercial construction in Pasco saw a big surge in 2006; the construction value of stores and offices leaped from $6.7-million in 2005 to $77.5-million.

With massive office megadevelopments like Ashley Glen, with its proposed 1.8-million square feet of office space at the Suncoast Parkway and SR 54, still in the pipeline, some industry watchers wonder if commercial construction is headed down the same path that the residential market took.

"I got the impression beginning last year that commercial is the latest craze in real estate," said Tim Hayes, a Land O'Lakes development attorney. "You have people subdividing, leasing and flipping them for $100,000 profits. Now I'm wondering if the market's being saturated with this stuff."

Those like Howell may be the precursor of a surfeit of inventory in commercial construction - or simply an investor smart enough to move swiftly into a market just burgeoning after years playing second fiddle to homebuilding.

Whatever his fate, Howell is playing a role in the physical transformation of SR 54, with standalone office and retail parks now increasingly jostling for space alongside residential subdivisions.

"It's the demise of the grocery-anchored malls," Hayes observed.

"(Commercial) developments that let people own their own building have become very popular."

Chuin-Wei Yap covers growth and development. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.

 

 

[Last modified January 9, 2007, 07:42:54]


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